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Who Did Jesse L. Martin Play in Rent? Learn What He Says About the Broadway Hit Today

Jesse L. Martin caught his big break after being cast in the 1990s musical Rent. Learn how he was originally introduced to Jonathan Larson.

By Jill Sederstrom

Decades before taking on the lead role in NBC’s new crime drama The Irrational, Jesse L. Martin caught his big break in one of the 1990s' most iconic Broadway musicals. 

How to Watch

Watch the Season 2 premiere of The Irrational Tuesday, October 1 at 10/9c on NBC and next day on Peacock

Martin was part of the original cast of the musical Rent, with its decade-defining take on AIDs, poverty, and homelessness. The musical followed the lives of eight characters as they fought to live and survive in New York City’s East Village amid the backdrop of the AIDs epidemic. Its alternative rock numbers and emotional core quickly resonated with fans, earning it a 12-year run on the country’s biggest stage. 

The year it debuted, in 1996, Rent took home four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

What character did Jesse L. Martin play in Rent

Adam Pascal, Tracie Thoms, Anthony Rapp, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs and Rosario Dawson from the movie Rent at an event.

Martin played Tom Collins, an openly gay anarchist teacher and computer genius, in the Broadway musical’s original cast. He later went on to reprise the role in the 2005 movie Rent

Martin was already working as a burgeoning actor when he first crossed paths with Rent creator Jonathan Larson. The pair briefly worked together at Moondance Diner.

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“The place was open 24 hours, and Jonathan trained me when I had to work overnight,” Martin once told Playbill. “He told me he was a composer. By the end of the week, I quit; I got a job on New York Undercover.

Martin and Larson crossed paths again at the auditions for Rent, where Martin landed the role of Tom Collins. 

“It was several months later, and at first we couldn’t figure out how we knew each other,” he said.

Tragically, Larson would never live to see the show’s massive success. He died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35 on Jan. 25, 1996, the night before Rent previews were set to begin at an off-Broadway theater, according to PBS

The cast soldiered on without their leader, officially premiering on Broadway on April 29,1996.

Rent soon took the world by storm, but Martin admitted to Playbill it was hard to enjoy the ride at the time.

“We always said, ‘Six years from now, I’m gonna be able to sit down and say, ‘Wow, that was amazing!’ But at the time, it was hard to do that. First of all, it was a lot of work,” he said. “Secondly, you were so wrapped up in what you needed to do, in order to propel this story into the universe. We didn’t have a chance to enjoy it while we were doing it. We were on a mission. It wasn’t until many years later that I could actually appreciate what it was that we did.”

What has Jesse L. Martin said about playing Tom Collins in Rent?

Jesse L. Martin in a blue suit and hat attending the Barbara Berlanti Heroes Gala.

Martin’s character Tom Collins was a philosophy professor and computer genius, who also happened to be HIV positive. A central arc in the character’s story is his romance with Angel Dumont Shunard, a transgender woman.

“He is probably the only one that doesn’t have any real creative ambitions like striving to be the best artist or the best filmmaker. He just wants to keep his family around him,” Martin once told the Australian publication Female of Collins.  “I mean, you move to New York and you basically adopt the family that you want and he found his family and he wanted to make sure he didn’t lose them, whether it be to a disease or what have you.” 

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Not long after his successful run on the musical, Martin took on another well-known gig, this time on television. 

For years, Martin portrayed Detective Ed Green on Law & OrderHe played the no-nonsense cop for eight seasons from 1999 to 2008.

However, it wouldn’t be the end of his connection with Rent.

In Season 15 of Law & Order, Green was shot while escorting a witness to court in a carefully crafted maneuver to give Martin time away from the successful series to film the movie adaptation of Rent. 

While his character recovered off-screen, Martin was free to step back into the iconic role that helped launch his career. 

Martin praised NBC and Law & Order creator Dick Wolf for accommodating the schedule request. 

“[Dick Wolf] really wanted me to stick with the show, so he made it rather easy for me to take off and do the movie,” Martin told Female. “It showed me he had a lot of respect for me and he had a lot of respect for the project because he literally said ‘There is no way you can’t do this movie, there is no way. You have to be in that movie.’” 

Did Jesse L. Martin Appear in Rent: Live?

In 2019, Rent was brought to a new generation of fans in the television event Rent: Live

This time around, Collins was played by Brandon Victor Dixon, but Martin still made an appearance in the production alongside the other original cast members of Rent, including Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Anthony Rapp, Fredi Walker, Taye Diggs, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia, according to Broadway Buzz.

Today, Martin is back to his crime-fighting ways — although this time as a behavioral scientist with a knack for catching criminals — on the new NBC drama The Irrational. The series premiere September 25 at 10/9c on NBC. You can watch the trailer, above.